Tetrazzini studied singing initially with her sister Eva, herself a successful singer, and then at the Istituto Musicale, Florence with Ceccherini and Contrucci. Married at an early age to Giuseppe Scalaberni, who owned the building in which the Teatro Pagliano was located, she spent many hours listening to rehearsals and when, aged only nineteen (1890), she learnt that the soprano scheduled to sing Inez in a production of L’Africana was ill, she substituted for her and was an immediate success: her career was launched. She went on to sing in many of the smaller Italian opera houses and at the Teatro Argentina in Rome.
In 1892 Tetrazzini travelled to South America, making her debut in Buenos Aires in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor and enjoying not only success in Argentina but also when singing in Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay. During 1896 she appeared in Florence and Milan as well as in Berlin and St Petersburg before returning to Mexico in 1898. During this period her repertoire was focused upon lyric coloratura parts such as Violetta / La traviata, Gilda / Rigoletto, Philene / Mignon and Oscar / Un ballo in maschera as well as Lucia.
At the end of 1904 Tetrazzini made her North American debut in San Francisco, where she became immensely popular as Lucia, Violetta and in the title role of Meyerbeer’s Dinorah. Although Heinrich Conried, manager of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, made a contract for her to sing at the Met during the 1905–1906 season, he failed to make it legally binding, with the result that Tetrazzini did not appear there immediately, despite legal action on his part. Instead, during that season she toured Mexico, Venezuela and the Caribbean islands.
In London Tetrazzini’s debut came in 1907 at the Royal Opera House, where she created a sensation as Violetta and attracted the attention of The Gramophone Company, which went on to record her extensively, following her earlier records made between 1903 and 1905. She returned to London for every (summer) season from 1908 to 1912, singing Gilda, Lucia, Rosina / Il barbiere di Siviglia, Leila / Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Marguerite / Les Huguenots and the title role in Lakmé.
Oscar Hammerstein I signed Tetrazzini to appear in 1908 at his Manhattan Opera House in New York, where she repeated her London success as Violetta. She sang with Hammerstein’s company for three consecutive seasons and then with the Met, giving only eight performances there during the 1911–1912 season as Lucia, Violetta and Gilda. She also appeared with the San Francisco Opera (1910–1911), the Chicago Opera (1911–1913) and the Boston Opera (1911–1914). By this time her repertoire had developed to include Elvira / I puritani, Mathilde / Guillaume Tell, Adina / L’elisir d’amore, Marie / La Fille du Régiment, Ophélie / Hamlet and the title role in Linda di Chamounix.
At the time of the outbreak of World War I Tetrazzini retired from the stage, her considerable size being a contributory factor, but continued with her career as a concert artist for many years. After the war she appeared in Berlin, Paris and Vienna (1919), in London (1920) and undertook an American tour (1920–1921). Her continuing renown as a singer may be gauged from the fact that she took part in the first concert to be broadcast by radio in England, in 1925.
She appeared for the last time in New York in 1931 and gave her farewell performance at the London Palladium in 1934. Despite having earned vast sums of money from her career, much of this wealth was dissipated by her three husbands, and towards the end of her life she taught in Rome and Milan.
The possessor of a rock-solid vocal technique which enabled her to surmount any vocal challenge with ease and an upper register crowned by ringing high notes, Tetrazzini was a favourite partner of other operatic superstars of the period, notably Bastianini and Caruso, who felt that she brought out the best in them. Although short and stout, she could act effectively on-stage, especially in comic roles which gave free rein to her vivacious and optimistic personality.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).